Arsenal and Manchester United slugged out a nil-nil draw at the Emirates today that definitely left both sides feeling as if they could have taken the full points. You’ll definitely hear “disappointing” thrown around about the final score, but if you take a step back, was it “disappointing” for Arsenal?
I say no.
The Gunners were without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, and Kieran Tierney, three starters and, arguably, three of the most important players for how Mikel Arteta wants his team to play. Manchester United, a supposed title-challenger, weren’t missing anybody. Now, I disagree with classifying United as such, but either way, they should be beating a depleted Arsenal side.
On the other hand, if you hadn’t watched the match, I told you those three were out for Arsenal, and they’d managed a draw, you’d be ecstatic. Both sides had their chances, with United edging out the Gunners for quantity, but today’s match could have gone either way. And that’s the rub — it feels like Arsenal could have managed better than a draw today.
David Luiz (his on-ball decisions in the attacking third aside) and Rob Holding were both quite good today. United break fast and dangerously, Edinson Cavani’s movement is threatening, and their wide players are always looking to pick him out for one-time shots / redirects. The Arsenal centerbacks did a pretty good job keeping that in check. But you’re not going to keep that style of attack completely under wraps for a full 90 minutes; Cavani easily could (and maybe should) have had a goal. Fortunately, the combination of Bernd Leno and a bit of luck did the rest.
Down the other end of the pitch, Nicolas Pepe looked up for it. He put in one of his better performances in an Arsenal shirt and has done so in a few matches running. Maybe something has clicked for him. Alexandre Lacazette was solid, too. He was often isolated against both centerbacks but did well to hold the play up and work with his back to goal. He pinged a free kick off the crossbar that, from David De Gea’s perspective, was one of those “turn and hope it doesn’t go in” — the United keeper was rooted to the spot. Hopefully Lacazette’s injury isn’t too serious, but given how he was holding his arm, I’m concerned that he could miss an extended period.
Emile Smith Rowe wasn’t as effective today as he’s been during the Gunners’ good run of form. I think that’s down to a combination of Bukayo Saka missing out, Gabriel Martinelli only playing a half, and United being a better team than recent competition. Mikel Arteta said that swapping Willian for Martinelli at halftime was a tactical decision, which, while I hated it at the time, actually worked out decently well. Willian played probably his best minutes since the Fulham match and had three or four important defensive interventions.
Willian is still limited going forward, but he did get around the corner once and picked out Pepe well. United were fortunate that Pepe’s shot on the move cannoned off Maguire because he didn’t know much about the block and De Gea wasn’t getting near it. Willian also had a gilt-edged chance of his own but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet. Oh well. If he can put in cameo appearances (emphasis on cameo) like today’s, he won’t be a complete disaster. That would be a distinct upgrade over what he’s been thus far.
Thomas Partey did not have a great game. He was as good as ever in terms of defending, breaking up the play, and tackling, but on the ball, he left a lot to be desired. His passing was off, he lost the ball on the dribble more than usual, and his decision-making wasn’t as good. Some of the credit for Partey’s struggles go to Manchester United — they pressed hard for most of the match and caused some real problems for the Gunners. Some of the struggles are likely due to maybe not being 100% fit and / or rested enough to play all the minutes being asked of him. And sometimes, guys just don’t have as good of games.
Fortunately, Granit Xhaka picked up most of the slack. He’s in a strong run of form, and he and Partey look to be developing a good partnership.
I’m resisting the temptation to write a paragraphs-long screed excoriating Bruno Fernandes. So I’ll say this: I cannot stand him as a footballer. He’s dirty. He dives. And he expects to get every call. I don’t think I could bring myself to like him even if he played for Arsenal. You can have one of those three. Maybe two. But all three, no way.
He should have been sent off for raking his studs down Granit Xhaka’s Achilles. It was a filthy challenge made worse by, as Lee Dixon put it, Fernandes “knowing exactly what he was doing.” He and Xhaka had a tete-a-tete minutes before about Cedric’s yellow card — the challenge was intentional, targeted revenge. Despicable, cynical stuff.
Crap, I wrote two paragraphs about him. Oh well. Also, while I’m at it, Harry Maguire could have had 4 yellows today. He got just the one. I’m really trying (and failing, mostly) to not harp on about the officiating. I promise, y’all!
Bottom line: pretty good result for the Gunners. They’re up to 8th in the table (for now). They’re unbeaten in their last 7 league matches. They kept another clean sheet — that’s five in the last six. They’ve given up the second-fewest goals in the PL. Manchester United have failed to score in four of their last five against Arsenal, five of six at the Emirates. Arsenal haven’t lost to Manchester United in the Premier League in six straight. The Gunners are heading the right direction, which is a marked improvement from five weeks ago, when they were languishing in the bottom third and people were wondering whether Mikel Arteta was on the hot seat.
Arsenal have a difficult, busy February ahead of them. Think they’re up for it?